A 60-mile bee highway is forming across the Triangle’s corporate offices

In 2014, Leigh-Kathryn Bonner was just looking for a place to put her beehives.

After being told she couldn’t keep one at her apartment complex, she asked the American Tobacco Campus in Durham, where she was interning as an N.C. State University student, if she could put the hive on top of their building.

It was a temporary solution for the fourth-generation beekeeper’s passion project, but it was also one that soon launched a real business. Other companies, like Burt’s Bees in Durham, saw what was happening and asked for her to place urban beehives on their roofs.

Now, nearly five years later, hundreds of Bee Downtown’s hives can be found at corporate offices across the Triangle — and now even in Atlanta, after it expanded there.

In the Triangle, the hives will soon form a connected ecosystem of colonies that stretches 60 miles from Garner to Chapel Hill, meaning beehives at SAS in Cary will one day connect to a beehive at N.C. State or a beehive in downtown Chapel Hill.

On Friday, RTI International in the Research Triangle Park became the latest company to add hives to its corporate campus. The research nonprofit was one of several companies in RTP, including the Parmer campus, to create apiaries with Bee Downtown this week.

Bees wander around a frame in an observation hive set up as part of a ceremony at RTI International to celebrate with Bee Downtown the addition of new hives at RTI International Friday, April 26, 2019. The hives will be part of a pollinator corridor in RTP to help rebuild healthy honey bee populations. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

The connected corridor or “Bee Highway,” Bonner said, is important to provide healthy habitats for a honey bee population that has faced a sharp decline in recent years, due to disease, habitat loss and harmful pesticides. Honey bees are important because they are one of the world’s largest pollinators, helping many agricultural plants produce the food we and other organisms eat.

“Everything that we know about pollinator health and pollinator habitat is that there needs to be healthy corridors for all pollinators to travel through,” Bonner said in an interview.

The 60-mile corridor should be fully completed later this year, Bonner added. Right now, a gap in the corridor exists near the airport, but a new hive should be installed later this year.

Beyond creating the corridor, though, adding hives often changes the way companies treat their land, Bonner said. Once companies bring on beehives, they become more careful about how they do their landscaping, eliminating the use of harmful pesticides that can devastate colonies.

“When we work with companies,” she said, “they then turn around and say we want all pollinator-friendly plants (and) that we are done spraying harmful chemicals. They are then creating healthy habitats for all pollinators.”

The losses for bees have been steep in recent times. During the winter of 2017-18, an estimated 30.7% of managed colonies in the U.S. were lost, which was an increase of 9.5 percentage points over the previous year, according to data from the Bee Informed Partnership. The 10-year average colony loss rate in the U.S. stood at 27.9% at the time, the same report said.

Decades ago the loss rate for colonies was much lower, sometimes in the single digits, said Ben Dictus, a beekeeper for Bee Downtown. The loss rate for Bee Downtown hives last year was 18% in comparison, he said.

James Gibson, chief operating officer at RTI, said becoming aware of the steep declines facing the insect was a big motivation for his company’s involvement with Bee Downtown. RTI International, which does research for the government and many other organizations, does a lot of its work on the environment, so many of its employees are passionate about the health of honey bees, Gibson added.

“We all have read over the years about the decline of the bee population for many reasons,” Gibson said in an interview. “And now to be part of something that is taking action to bring the bee population back, because of its importance to our society and the way we live, is really an important effort.”

Additionally, RTI will also use the hives to offer employee engagement and leadership exercises, as part of its agreement with Bee Downtown.

The apiary at RTI International will be able to cover 18,000 acres once the two beehives are installed and they should be really productive, Gibson said. The secluded campuses within Research Triangle Park, with their walls of trees and manicured gardens, are actually ideal grounds for beehives compared to some of the more urban environments.

If the climate is ideal — cold winters produce more honey — the apiaries in RTP can sometimes produce 100 pounds of honey per year, said Dictus, who tries to visit all 150 beehives in the Triangle every few weeks.

Eventually, all of that honey might one day find its way from a field on RTI’s campus to being served in its cafeteria, Gibson said.

Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.